With the faith-versus-law standoff in Kerala reaching a flashpoint at Sabarimala, Onmanorama posed a few questions to former bureaucrats to know how did they tackle such situations in the past. Almost all of them said they never faced anything as daunting as the situation that is now playing out around the hallowed Sabarimala hills. How do civil servants handle such issues?
Take devotees into confidence: Jacob Punnoose
Former DGP Jacob Punnoose said he had dealt with volatile situations before but none of them was as potentially combustible as Sabarimala. He was in charge when the police stormed the Sivagiri Mutt in 1995 when A K Antony was chief minister, also when Abdul Nasser Madani was arrested in 2010. “In the Sivagiri case, we were carrying out a High Court order. In the Madani case, there was an arrest warrant issued by the Karnataka police. In both the cases, therefore, the police were just carrying out judicial and executive orders,” Punnoose said.
The former DGP said the biggest torment for authorities in such faith-related situations was “how do you carry out a directive handed down from the top without offending religious sentiments?” He said the police had to strike a delicate balance. “The devotees should be taken into confidence but that should not mean that we would act the way they desire,” he said. “At Sivagiri and Anwarserry in Kollam district (where Madani's home is) we did our best to keep hurt to the minimum,” Punnoose said. There was lathicharge at Sivagiri, he was reminded. "That was the minimum force used given that arms were already accumulated inside the mutt premises. That the police action did not hurt religious sentiments was borne out by the fact that Congress candidate Varkala Kahar was elected to the Assembly for three consecutive terms after that," he said.
Punnoose said seasoned officials with the experience of having handled similar situations should be deputed in tense situations. “We had the Kollam commissioner herself at the spot when the Sivagiri operation was carried out. They should be able to convince the faithful that they are not there out of any wayward police enthusiasm but only as an instrument of law,” Punnoose said. At the moment, he said the police were doing commendably well at Sabarimala.
Engage protesters: Jayakumar
“This is too complex an issue. One wrong move, things could fall apart. I just don't feel like speaking about it,” said former chief secretary K Jayakumar who was also ex-chairman of the Sabarimala high power committee.
Jayakumar, too, felt that the police should constructively engage the protesters. But he soon seemed to have realised that it was easier said than done. “At this point, is there anything to talk about,” he asked.
Mother of all religious issues: Senkumar
Former DGP T P Senkumar understood the government's compulsion. "The government is obliged to implement the Supreme Court order," he said. But it was the police force that was in the most unenviable position, he said.
"A religious issue is the biggest law and order problem the police can ever face. And Sabarimala is the mother of all religious issues,” Senkumar said.
Use show of force: Babu Paul
Former top bureaucrat D Babu Paul, too, felt that the situation was tricky. According to him, there was perhaps just one way to deal with the issue. “Use the show of force to avoid the use of force,” he said. Babu Paul said he had once employed the trick when an issue related to a procession taken out by a temple in Thodupuzha in the early 80s threatened to flare up into a communal issue. “We lined up gun-toting policemen in large numbers and gave the impression that we might shoot down anyone creating trouble. At the same time, secret and strict orders were sent to the policemen not to use force even at the most severe provocation. The plan worked. We were able to instil sufficient fear in the local troublemakers,” Babu Paul said.
The police seem to have employed the 'show of force' strategy in Sabarimala. Besides the presence of a large police force commanded by senior officers, a commando force has also been stationed at Nilakkal. In a more flashy show of power, the Air Force will fly its helicopters at low altitude over Nilakkal and surrounding areas. Drones have also been deployed. A message has been transmitted that there would be nothing that would be left unwatched by the police.
Still, Babu Paul knows that Sabarimala is a different ball game all together. “My only advice would be for the police to show maximum restraint, which they are now doing. It is a tight rope walk. One moment of impatience on the part of a single policeman could invite hell upon earth. Then, only Lord Ayyappa can save us,” he said.
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